Clear backpacks lean against one another like a line of fallen dominoes. Inside each of the bags is a collection of specially curated books. As a caregiver’s murmurs break the silence of the Oak Park Library children’s section, the top of a child’s head peeks above the bookshelves.
Sitting behind a plastic barrier that faces the library’s aquatic-themed entrance, Hallothon Patnott pulls out a large children’s book. As the resident children’s librarian, Patnott specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ youth and allies. He greets everyone who approaches the counter with a gentle tone.
“I always knew I wanted to be a children’s librarian,” Patnott said.
Pattnott is open about his own transition. He grew up in Holland, MI, where the possibility of other gender identities was not discussed among his family or in his environment. He came to Chicago to get his master’s degree in library and information science from Dominican University.
For Patnott, the importance of creating a safe learning environment for children and caregivers using the library is underlined by his own lack of resources while growing up.
“I’m from a really small conservative town. I didn’t have access to any of the books or resources that would have told me that trans people exist,” Patnott said. “I don’t think I even really knew that trans people existed, particularly not trans men, until well into college.”
Once some of his friends started coming out, understanding of his own gender identity as a transgender man finally clicked for Patnott, he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s something that I could be.’”
In states where school districts are banning LGBTQIA+ literature, proponents of those bans often argue that students are too young to learn about topics like gender and sexuality.
Ricky Hill, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, says spaces like Oak Park Library can be important referral points for families seeking gender-affirming care.
“I believe that currently, public libraries are under attack. Anything I can do to bring queerness into those spaces in a really visible way is very important,” said Hill.
Hill works directly with the Chicago LGBTQIA+ community and sees those members who are directly impacted by accessing queer resources.
”Libraries are one of the most important community information hubs,” they said. “Libraries aren’t just for reference materials, they are places where people just come to spend time. A lot of people who are either unhoused or transient show up in those spaces; young people show up in those spaces quite a bit.”
The Oak Park library provides such a space. During after school hours, students gather outside, run in and out of the building, and seem to know the librarians well as they greet them. The building is a hub for locals to socialize and complete homework.
The library also offers kits for caregivers of children visiting the library in search of resources to understand a child who may have just come out to them.
“There are ways that explore your identity, it can be playful, beautiful and fun,” he said. “The resource kits aim to help caregivers facilitate conversations about gender identity with their children in an age-appropriate way. Some kits are designed to be used with a group of kids in a classroom setting, or used at home.”
One book, From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, which is not among the list of banned books in states around the country, is especially important to Patnott. He uses it as a tool in his gender workshops.
“It’s this really beautiful story about a genderfluid child, who is a shapeshifter, and their mom,” Patnott said. “They are starting school for the first time and they’re excited and really nervous.”
The story focuses on showing kids how to celebrate themselves—and also serves as a good example of a parent supporting their child as they explore their gender. During gender workshops, he pairs the book with locally made costumes, puppets, and masks that let the children become shapeshifters themselves.
That kind of programming can significantly change the lives of LGBTQIA+ children and build the foundation of their support systems, Hill said.
Aster Gilbert, the manager of training and public education at the Center on Halsted in Chicago, often speaks at schools and other organizations about the importance of supporting LGBTQIA+ youth and other members of the community in the workplace.
LGBTQ+ students experience much higher rates of discrimination and bullying than other students, although they are a smaller fraction of the population, Gilbert said.
“They experience lower rates of feeling safe in the classroom, but also they experience higher rates of punishment, which includes being punished for being bullied. So if someone bullies a child for being LGBTQ, the LGBTQ youth is often punished as much or more than the bully,” they explained.
Having a space like the one Patnott has built could be the difference between life and death for LGBTQIA+ individuals, Gilbert added.
“These experiences of LGBTQ youth lead to higher rates of truancy, higher rates of homelessness,” Gilbert said. Among homeless people, LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented, they added,which can lead to higher rates of substance abuse and drug use.
In many situations, caregivers don’t know how to react when their children question their gender identity or sexuality. But the more that guardians and other adults support exploring that identity, and mirror the language that child is using to explore their identity, then the more likely that child is to feel like they can live a fulfilled life as an adult, Gilbert said. The potential for suicide is lowered, as well as the potential for substance abuse.
“The stakes could not be higher when it comes to supporting LGBTQ youth,” they said.
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